This is the second in a series of indie author interviews, with Brian Francis Heffron.
I first encountered Brian on Facebook – both writers, and all that. Then he engaged me and others in a conversation on Goodreads concerning a most prescient, historical question: Why hasn’t there been more novels about the glories and travails of the ‘sixties – from the countercultural perspective? The course of that e-conversation led me to ponder memories of that era – mine certainly less romantic and countercultural than Brian’s. Still it was hard not to have grand adventures during that time – a time that has spawned many changes in the U.S.’s social fabric. Brian’s story, Colorado Mandala, has to do with two friends living such grand adventures, both men vying for the affections of a beautiful woman. Besides being a sailor ( as he describes in his interview), Brian has been a writer/producer/director for PBS, and is a poet.
Below, I discuss the book and its beginnings with Brian.
Gridley Fires – – With the background I allude to above, how did you come to write this novel?
Brian Heffron – – In the seventies I attended Emerson College’s Writing Program in Boston. My “Writers in Residence” instructors included Russell Banks and Viet Nam novelist Tim O’Brien. These two men inspired me to write a novel about Viet Nam and its effects on our returning soldiers. Because I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from some events that happened to me in my youth, (even though I did not know it at that time) these brave Veterans and myself had something deeply in common. We had all experienced trauma, and in a sense were similar in our symtoms, which include hyper-vigilance, self-isolating behavior, over-reactive action, self medicating to remain calm, and a fear of perilous situations, even if they were only in our own minds. So I set out to hitchhike around our great and vast country with the intent to interview as many of these returning vets as I could. They did not want to have anything to do with me at first. It was a closed circle and if you were not a veteran you were not welcome. But gradually, probably because they could see that I was also damaged in the same way, they began to accept me and even welcome me into their private worlds. Thus I began to interview and record all their ghastly stories about what they had experienced in their war. I interviewed at least thirty of these men and even though their stories were different, they did have one thing in common: PTSD. Their plight and courage and decency inspired me to try and capture what had happened to them without revealing any private information, so I chose the vehicle of a fictional novel to communicate the effects of PTSD with the hope that it would function as a tool to help soothe, comfort, and perhaps even to heal people with PTSD, no matter how they acquired it. I worked on the book for all of the remaining three years I was at Emerson College. Each week taking in a chapter to my writing class and having it examined and critiqued by my brother and sister writers in the Emerson College BFA program. By the time I graduated I had finished the book.
But then, upon graduation from Emerson, an opportunity to become a professional delivery sailor came my way, and I spent the next two years at sea, never sleeping ashore as I hopped from sailboat to sailboat making a complete circumnavigation of the North Atlantic. I worked my way up from deckhand to helmsman (I can steer well in a storm) to Celestial Navigator (there was no GPS back then so one had to master the use of a sexton – used to determine your position at sea) to licensed delivery skipper. I crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 35 days. All the while my book, now entitled Colorado Mandala, sat idle with the rest of my stored treasures at the house of a blood brother who cared for them.
Then last year I found an old copy of the book and had it retyped into my Mac. I then set about revising it with the benefit of all I had learned in those four intervening decades. The book changed dramatically. PTSD had been identified and understood by this time, and I suddenly realized that writing the book in the seventies had been an attempt at self healing. The book grew and deepened, perhaps because, dare I say, I too had grown and deepened?
In any case, the revised version was finished and sent out to editors and proof readers and gradually refined to the point where it was ready for publication. That is how the book was created and I think, according to the reviews we have received so far, I may have succeeded in capturing what it is like to suffer from PTSD and perhaps even to have pointed a way to recovery through the love of others and therapy from learned doctors. That was my intent, and if you read the book I think you will agree that it does soothe and explain this complex and painful malady now suffered by hundereds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life.
But the book is also a cracking action adventure story and a deeply involving romance…so it is not just about Viet Nam and PTSD. It is a story of people and the lives they lead, with the pain and joy we all feel every day.
GF – – In Colorado Mandala, your adventurous narrator, Paul, seems poles apart from his troubled friend, Michael Atman. How do you see their differences, their similarities? What, in your view, makes this pair work as fictional characters?
BH – – They are almost opposites. Some readers have pointed out that perhaps all three characters in Colorado Mandala, Michael, the x-Green beret, Paul, the wandering seeking soul of a new generation, and Sarah, the earthy and nurturing woman they both love, are all parts of myself. I think this may be true. Paul is the narrator and he is a gentle soul who knows his friend Michael has been damaged and cares and loves him enough to stand by him during his worst demonstrations of PTSD. They are “buddies” or “mates” or whatever word you want to use to describe two men who love each other unconditionally. They fight and argue, but beneath that they would probably die for one another. This is the greatest love one can have for another human being, and Sarah is there to try to referee their friendship so that neither of them actually goes too far over the edge. You have to read the book to see if I have succeeded in telling a true story about two men and a women who love each other and are desperately trying to help each other become whole again.
GF – – The book’s mood seems largely captured by your narrative. Was it a conscious decision to do this?
BH – – Yes, I guess so. The 1970s was a unique era of change in America. The country was split down the middle by politics, the assassinations of the previous decade, and the liberation movements of civil rights, feminism and the newly fought-for acceptance of same sex relationships. They even had a name for it back then: it was called “The Generation Gap,” and it was like a Berlin Wall between the young and the old. I tried in my book to tear this wall down by showing that people are all the same at heart, even if we have dramatically different beliefs and make widely different choices. We all bleed red and feel pain. So why not emphasize the similarities rather than highlight the differences? This is what human values should be, tolerance and acceptance of all others who do no harm. To this day, I do not understand why people stir up trouble for other folks who are doing them no harm. I think it may be because conflict makes money for media corporations, as they can sell people screaming at each other but not reaching out for each other. The pursuit of money in America has become the ultimate goal and the previous values of love, friendship and shared hardship have mostly gone the way of the log cabin. They are still here to a degree, but they are hidden away in the dense woods of the high mountains. I would like to see love portrayed more often and not just this endless battle of minor differences and intolerance of the choices of others. I hope that makes sense.
GF – – What are you up to now; is there another novel in the works?
BH – – Yes, I am now writing an historical fiction book about the period of the Irish rebellion from approximately 1907 to 1922. My ancestor, James Larkin was the founder of the Irish Citizens Army, a labor army formed of dock workers, carters and transportation workers, which quickly became the main defense of the labor class of Dublin, people who at that time were living in a grim and horrible squalor brought about by the exploitation of the Irish people by the British aristocracy. For instance, the death rate in Dublin at that time was comparable to that of “The Black Hole of Calcutta”: Twenty-five people to a room and rampant and crushing poverty. Larkin was like an avenging angel as he roused the Irish people back to their senses and told them: “The great appear great because you are on your knees – Arise!” I am an Irish Citizen and this is really a family history set against the larger world-affecting revolution that freed Ireland from British domination.
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